Buddy Squires, one of the newest members of the ASC, recently told me an interesting story. He was attending a premier party for Salinger, a film written, directed and produced by Shane Salerno. Salinger’s famous reclusiveness was the impetus for an unusual approach. Buddy was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “It is safe to say that no one has ever seen a film like this.”
The cast and crew list includes actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, John Cusack, Martin Sheen as well as big-name writers. But cinematography and documentary buffs might be more impressed with the guest list at Buddy’s table at a party given for the Salinger premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
“I had the great good fortune to find myself at a table with Albert Maysles, D. A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus and Barbara Kopple,” Buddy told me.
My pithy response: “Wow. Oh, man.”
Maysles is of course a pioneer and master of the documentary form, one of the people who can be credited with inventing what we now think of as documentary. In 1997, he was recognized by the ASC with the President’s Award. Readers of this blog will also know that Pennebaker, Hegedus and Kopple are documentarians with few peers, with the exceptions of Ken Burns and Buddy himself.
Buddy took the opportunity to ask Maysles what he thought of the film Salinger, which stretches the form and was nine years in the making, with Buddy as a major contributor.
Maysles reached out and grabbed Buddy’s hand, and said, “I do like it. It’s not the film I would make — I don’t know what film I would make, because this is very personal subject matter. It’s not the way I make movies. But I like it.”
“In a way, Albert was saying that it’s OK to be doing something differently,” says Buddy. “I think he respects what we’ve done, and that it’s good to be pushing the format and moving in new directions. Not for the sake of being new or different, because I don’t think anybody does good work by working negatively. Shane was pushing things in a new direction, and I was trying to help him, and serve his vision as best I could.
“I still love the verité ways of shooting, but I am open to all these new ways that are moving and emerging,” says Buddy. “The bottom line is just it needs to be sincere.”
I asked Buddy is cynicism is antithetical to good documentary. “I don’t think so,” he replies. “I suppose Supersize Me could be seen as being cynical, and I would support that movie fully. GasLand could be seen as cynical, and I would support that film fully. Because they’re taking on political topics, maybe cynicism in those cases is a good weapon, and there’s nothing wrong with that because it’s sincere in its way. It might not be the film I’d make, but it is a valid thing to do.”
In addition to Salinger, Buddy has been working on new films with Ken Burns on topics including Viet Nam, country music, Jackie Robinson and the Roosevelt family. He has also been shooting episodes of the Masterclass series for HBO. The Masterclass assignment gives Buddy the opportunity to turn his camera on artists in a range of disciplines like Liv Ullmann, Edward Albee, Frank Gehry, Julian Schnabel and Bill T. Jones.
Masterclass is a largely verité project. Buddy spends several days or even a week with the subjects as they pass along some sense of their work and process to younger generations.
“It’s an amazing opportunity,” says Buddy. “It’s a great excuse to spend time with these wonderful people as they are trying to figure out what they have to pass along to younger people. It’s thrilling to be with them when they are working. What is that essential thing that Renée Fleming can give to a young opera student? What is it that Wynton can pass on to a young sax player? How does Julian Schnabel begin to talk about what is painting? Their work is so individual and so unique. It’s a privilege just to be around.”
At MOMA, the Wynton Marsalis episode of Masterclass was screening simultaneously with the Salinger film, in theaters on opposite ends of the museum.
“I was running back and forth from theater to theater, trying to be in two places at once,” says Buddy. Here’s hoping that Buddy’s work continues to keep him hopping.